The comedienne Lily Tomlin once joked that there is so much plastic in our lives that vinyl leopard skin is becoming an endangered synthetic.
A funny joke, yes, but the point is well taken. Just consider for example all the plastic shopping bags now used routinely at grocery stores, pharmacies, and practically anywhere purchases are made. These sturdy polyethylene bags do a good job toting our apples or frozen dinners to the car, but they are also endangering our marine environment.
Researchers say more than 80 percent of debris found in the middle of the ocean initially came from the land after being blown off of garbage trucks or out of landfills, spilled from railroad shipping containers or washed down storm drains. Plastic is a durable, buoyant and nearly indestructible material and can remain in the sea for hundreds of years, breaking up into tiny particles that often find their way inside plankton, the basis of the marine food chain
The plastics problem is so severe that a section of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of the continental United States has been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This enormous floating island of flotsam contains 100 million tons of plastic particles. These particles end up in the stomachs of marine birds and mammals killing millions each year.
Plastic shopping bags that once held a carton of eggs and pound of butter end up clogging gullets of sea turtles that mistake them for jellyfish, but replacing these bags with cloth totes is simple and inexpensive. Reusable and washable, they are available for about a buck in most places we routinely shop.
Still, what should we do with the bags we already have at home? The answer is the oft repeated mantra – renew, reuse and recycle. Many grocery stores provide a recycling container right outside the store where you can drop your old bags, or simply use them again the next time you shop. At home use them as small trashcan liners, as a pooper scooper on walks with the dog, or as a lunch tote, although probably not in that order.
There are actually creative and decorative ways to use these bags. Because the polyethylene material is quite durable they can be cut into strips and tied together to make a plastic yarn. This yarn can then be used to knit area rugs, braided dog leashes, even purses and hats.
Eliminating these bags from our lives may seem like a small step toward mitigating the effects of plastic on our environment. But such small steps can do a lot to prevent another massive plastic garbage patch from forming in our oceans. And that’s no joke.